The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Four months later, there’s been little political accountability for the Capitol riot

D.C. police officer Michael Fanone is swarmed by pro-Trump rioters at the Capitol Jan. 6. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

Few people can more directly speak to the violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6 than Michael Fanone.

Fanone is a police officer in Washington and was part of the contingent of D.C. officers called to the building that day after Capitol Police were quickly overpowered. At one point, Fanone was separated from his colleagues and pulled into the angry crowd.

“I was just surrounded in this sea of people, rioters, and they just started attacking me from all directions,” Fanone told CNN’s Don Lemon on Tuesday evening. “Guys were — rip my badge off, rip my radio off, started grabbing at my firearm, trying to grab ammunition magazines from my belt. It was just, you know, it was overwhelming. I mean, I felt like they were trying to kill me.”

He suffered a concussion from being beaten by the mob and a mild heart attack after being shocked with a stun gun. It was, he told Lemon, “the most brutal, savage, hand-to-hand combat of my entire life, let alone my policing career, which spans almost two decades.”

“It was nothing that I had ever thought would be a part of my law enforcement career, and nor was I prepared to experience,” Fanone said.

His appearance centered on a key, unanswered question: How could anyone still downplay what happened that day?

“It’s been very difficult seeing elected officials and other individuals kind of whitewash the events of that day or downplay what happened,” Fanone said. “Some of the terminology that was used, like ‘hugs and kisses’ and, you know, ‘very fine people,’ was very different from what I experienced and what my co-workers experienced on the 6th.”

That “hugs and kisses” comment is a reference to an interview Donald Trump gave to Fox News in March.

“Right from the start, it was zero threat,” Trump said, speaking of the events that day. “Look, they went in. They shouldn’t have done it. Some of them went in and they’re — they’re hugging and kissing the police and the guards. You know, they had great relationships. A lot of the people were waved in and then they walked in and they walked out.”

This conflation of Trump’s support with support for police officers was something Fanone called out specifically, even as he admitted he’d been “susceptible” to Trump’s pro-police rhetoric.

“To have a group of individuals or, you know, someone who had espoused to be a law-and-order official or a law-and-order president, and then experience what I experienced on the 6th, which I believe resulted from the rhetoric that was being used in the weeks leading up to January 6th?” he said. “I mean, that was difficult to come to terms with.”

In the wake of the attack, hundreds of those who participated have been arrested and await trial. Federal law enforcement officials have identified several distinct groups, members of which allegedly worked in concert to attack the building and foment violence. There’s been a broad, largely successful effort to track the members of the mob and hold them to account for their actions that day.

What has been less successful has been the effort at any sort of political accountability. Yes, Trump was impeached for his role in stoking the rioters’ anger with his dishonest rhetoric and in drawing them to Washington in the first place. That impeachment resulted in an unprecedented rebuke from his own party — but ultimately, in an acquittal, given the two-thirds requirement for conviction.

As was often the case during his presidency, members of Trump’s party had closed ranks around him in the months after the election. As Trump insisted without evidence that the election had somehow been stolen from him — it wasn’t — Republicans either tried to spin those claims to their advantage or went all-in to agree.

There are numerous examples. ProPublica evaluated the rhetoric used by Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), for example, finding multiple occasions on which he’d compared the moment to the advent of the Civil War. Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.) similarly suggested that the election results demanded revolution. Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.) compared the moment to a coup, telling Americans to “be ready to defend the Constitution and the White House.” The Republican Party in his state elevated a right-wing provocateur’s claim that he was “willing to give his life” to defend Trump.

“He is,” the party’s official Twitter account wrote. “Are you?”

Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) began the day on Jan. 6 claiming that “today was 1776,” a reference to the beginning of the American Revolution. Hours later, after the riot, she tried to reframe that line.

“1776 is the foundation of our country,” she said. “Today I signed my name to a document to defend that foundation and our freedom. The violence we saw today is inexcusable. Pray for America.”

The document she was signing was a list of members of Congress who were formally objecting to the counting of electoral votes from two states, Arizona and Pennsylvania. That signature was, in fact, the manifestation of a nonviolent effort to prevent President Biden’s inauguration. A majority of the Republican caucus in the House joined Boebert in supporting the effort to reject the will of voters in two states; several Republican senators, including Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), did as well. Even after the riot failed to derail the finalization of Trump’s loss, Republican legislators kept at the effort.

Put another way, there were two groups that were caught up in a mob mentality Jan. 6, using the cover provided by large numbers to attack democracy. One used vandalism and violence. The other used pens.

In each case, it’s critically important to try to differentiate between those who were actively involved in the efforts to overthrow the election and those who simply went along with it. The courts are evaluating the extent to which rioters were responsible for acts of violence and damage at the Capitol, as opposed to those who trespassed within the building. We should similarly draw a distinction between those politicians who encouraged false claims about the election, suggesting directly or not that the time for revolution had come (like Trump’s statement from outside the White House that morning that “if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore”) and those who simply signed on to the efforts to reject those votes. Each action undermined democracy, but the former posed an acute danger while the latter posed a more esoteric one.

These lines can be blurry. But even in cases where they aren’t, there’s been no real political cost paid.

Consider Hawley. He was the first senator to sign on to the effort to block the counting of electoral votes, an effort clearly focused on leveraging the energy of Trump’s base for overturning the election results, but one he predicated on dubious assertions about the constitutionality of Pennsylvania’s voting process. In the days leading up to Jan. 6, he tweeted that it was “time to STAND UP” and praised other Republicans for “joining the fight.” Even after the attack took place, he maintained his objection to the results in Pennsylvania, results that the state’s courts had determined should stand regardless of any questions about constitutionality.

Hawley both contributed to the anger of the crowd on Jan. 6, including by giving them a fist-pump of support that morning, and then tried to formally enact their will later that evening. The price Hawley paid for this? He had a book deal canceled — and then picked up by another publisher. He raised a ton of money in the first quarter (though with a caveat) and basked in praise at the Conservative Political Action Conference.

For the most part, Republicans aren’t particularly interested in re-litigating the day. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) spoke out forcefully against Trump and the violence in January but has since tried to downplay Trump’s role that day. The effort to establish a commission to study what occurred, a mirror of the commission that investigated the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has stalled. A March poll from Monmouth University found that just over half of Americans supported establishing a commission instead of doing internal investigations, including fewer than half of Republicans and independents.

Asked about particular components of a commission-led probe, you can see where opinions diverge: Republicans want it to focus on potential voter fraud while Democrats think it should look at the growth of militant groups and the role of white nationalists. No significant fraud has been identified in the 2020 election. Some of those arrested for storming the Capitol have been linked to militias or white nationalist groups.

A key lesson of the past four years is how Republican officials view Trump’s base often drives their political responses. There’s little apparent appetite within that base for a thorough review of Jan. 6 and certainly no appetite for anything that would cast Trump or other Republicans as having erred in either promoting election conspiracy theories or trying to block the final election results.

In part, this is a function of post-riot misinformation and rationalization. Polling in February suggested that most Republicans think that antifa — a small, loose-knit group of often-violent leftists — played some role in the Capitol attack. (There’s no evidence that it did.) Others have claimed that the storming of the Capitol was somehow comparable to or less problematic than violence that occasionally followed protests last summer.

Focus groups conducted by Democracy Corps captured some of that sentiment.

“When things started to turn south, the people who were doing it, some of the behaviors that they exhibited were the same behaviors antifa and BLM exhibits,” one Georgia man said. “For me, I feel as those folks, Trump supporters were there patriotically or not supporters. Then there were folks who integrated themselves to cause trouble and take it to another level. Some of those folks were plants by whoever — maybe the Deep State — to cause problems, and it worked. To make Trump look bad, and it worked.”

A man from Ohio wished the effort had been more successful.

“I’ll be honest, I wish they’d gotten Nancy Pelosi. Just me,” he said, referring to the speaker of the House. “I think a lot of this country stuff would be fixed if they could get her out of the seat. I don’t want to see anybody get hurt. Storming the Capitol, if that’s your right, you can do it. They went overboard, breaking windows and doing all that.”

This combination — rationalization minus accountability — suggests a still-extant threat. U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan pointed to that threat this month when denying an alleged rioter’s request for release on bail.

“While the certification of the 2020 Presidential Election is now complete, and President Biden has taken office, the Court is not convinced that dissatisfaction and concern about the legitimacy of the election results has dissipated for all Americans,” Sullivan wrote. “Former President Donald J. Trump continues to make forceful public comments about the ‘stolen election,’ chastising individuals who did not reject the supposedly illegitimate results that put the current administration in place.”

After citing some examples, Sullivan wrote that “such comments reflect the continued threat” posed by those who had allegedly engaged in violence on Jan. 6, including the defendant, Jack Whitton. Whitton, Sullivan said, had “demonstrated that he is willing and able to engage in extreme and terrifying levels of violence against law enforcement with a chilling disregard for the rule of law and the lives of law enforcement, seemingly based on mistaken beliefs about the illegitimacy of the current administration.”

Whitton has been charged with being part of the group that attacked Fanone.

“I want people to understand the significance of January 6th,” Fanone told Lemon on Tuesday. “I want people to understand that, you know, thousands of rioters came to the Capitol, hellbent on violence and destruction and murder, and that 850 [Metropolitan Police Department] officers responded there and really saved the day.”

Without an accounting of what happened, it remains unlikely that this understanding will permeate the public consciousness.